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Kindling A Fire: Go Outside and Play!

Our first day of school is around the corner, and families will soon be finishing summer work, shopping for supplies, and beginning fall sports practices. But before summer ends and the hustle and bustle of the school year begins, I hope your family makes time for a bit more play.

Play may seem like an unwelcome intrusion into the rigorous academic program of a school like Country Day. And according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, schools are making less and less time for unstructured play. But we see it differently. Play – especially in today’s over-scheduled, over-stressed environment – is essential to the development of scholars, leaders, and happy kids.

In fact, free play (in groups or alone) has long been one of the most important contributors to a student’s academic and social growth. When children are in charge of their own unstructured play, they develop mentally, physically, and emotionally.

First, unstructured play is important for cognitive development. Research has shown play to be one of the best ways to build executive function – traits like response inhibition, attention control, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. Similar results hold for creativity and problem-solving. Even a simple game of pretend – or what psychologists call “sociodramatic play” – can lead to “improved performances in both cognitive-linguistic and social affective domains.” Simply put, the young brain cannot develop without ample time for play.

Play also keeps children physically active and healthy. Nearly 20% of American children today are considered obese according to CDC standards. Unstructured play (particularly outdoor play) can help combat this troubling trend and build lifelong habits of physical activity. According to one study, increasing outdoor play in Head Start programs was associated with a 42% reduction in obesity. And at younger ages, free play builds motor skills that are important for early learning.  

But it may be in the realm of emotional development that play is most potent. Particularly for younger learners, nothing can match play’s ability to teach empathy, collaboration, negotiation skills, independence, resilience, and grit. A game of touch football or foursquare can instill key life skills such as teamwork and conflict resolution; 10 minutes on a swing can allow students to embrace risk safely; and a few minutes of coloring can allow children to quiet their minds and lower their anxiety.

In one study, researchers demonstrated that play stimulates the neurological “fight or flight” response without triggering the stress chemical cortisol. Thus, play allows children to encounter danger and manage risk safely without the detrimental effects of real stress. Our Head of Lower School, Mark Morawski, likes to quote Dr. Stuart Brown on the subject of play: “Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humor.”

To be sure, free play can sometimes be so unstructured that kids get bored. But that has its own value. In fact, boredom can be great for children – it builds their frustration tolerance, enhances their creativity, and forces them to take charge of their recreation. JK Rowling famously dreamed up the Harry Potter series while bored on a train. With a four-hour ride ahead of her, Rowling had no computer, no smartphone, not even a pen to entertain herself. But as she let her mind roam, the idea of a young wizard popped into her head. In this sense, boredom quite literally changed the world of children’s literature and entertainment.

At Country Day, we create numerous opportunities for unstructured play: frequent recess, regular outdoor exploration, and free time in the makerspace, just to name a few. And before summer ends, I hope you do the same for your family. There’s no need to be too prescriptive. According to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as long as you make room for choice, wonder, and delight, your kids will be smarter, happier, and set up for success.

School hasn’t started yet, so go outside and play!

"Kindling A Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This article was included in the August 2022 edition of the publication.